Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Fearful Summary: What Northrop Frye's Scholarship Has Taught Me So Far

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Fearful Summary: What Northrop Frye's Scholarship Has Taught Me So Far

Article excerpt

DURING THE PAST SIX YEARS, I've read many of the major works by Northrop Frye, from Fearful Symmetry to Words with Power, along with collections of his essays and some criticism of his intellectual work. I included his op-ed piece on thinking in my textbook on college level writing and research, and I have a statement by William Blake among the epigrams for my textbook ("You only have to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done"). The subtitle to my textbook is Developing an Imaginative Literacy, and, although I can't recall how I came up with this wording, I know my exposure to Frye's work influenced my choice of words.

The following is not an exaggeration: for the past three years or so I've had our university library's copy of Fearful Symmetry beside my laptop at home and I am reading and rereading parts of his first major work every day. And every once in a while, I'll type a list of the best "one liners" that have struck me while reading Fearful Symmetry (but from his other books, as well). For instance, recently I typed out the following statement from Fearful Symmetry: "We cannot by taking thought add a cubit to our statures; it is a change of worlds that is necessary, the lifting of the whole body to a fully imaginative plane by getting rid of the natural man" (194).

I see among my notes that I listed all the "different aspects of Paradise" to which he alludes and they are--if I may indulge your patience--the following:

   A universal human order (124)
   Eternal youth (218)
   Civilized eternal existence (264)
   Eternal civilized body (400)
   Permanent eternal form (323)
   Civilized human imagination (52)

In producing a reflection for this centenary of Frye's birth, then, I'd like to just say a couple things about Fearful Symmetry as a whole (although I've already produced several drafts in which I tried to do just that!).

First, even though the book is about the poetry of William Blake and what Frye called Blake's "canon," I think it provides incoming college students with a template of the major intellectual issues that they should face in liberal education (but alas, might very well be able to evade). Among these issues are epistemology, hermeneutics, and one's understanding and experience of Art. With regards to Art, I ask my classroom students, "Why do you suppose that liberal education has traditionally been divided into arts and Sciences?" Such a division suggests that educated people have found their engagement with the Arts (and the artistic method) to be as important as Science (and the scientific method) in producing important knowledge.

So it is interesting that the first chapters of Fearful Symmetry outline Blake's argument with Locke, and Frye's entire study hangs together with the contrasting of the Lockean and Blakean conception of the mind and their implication. In his explication, Frye not only explains how Art is central to Blake's argument, but he explains how Art links the person to what are called divine creative powers.

Within the context of liberal education, it is startling to read this: "Wisdom consists in the mental war which is art and the mental hunting which is science, and these constitute the eternal life of a Man who is God" (271; see also 71). Frye then clarifies this statement with syllogistic manoeuvres that seem to compel assent: "Art is human, but it is also divine because God is creator. Science is human, but it is also divine because God can hardly be the lazy and inert Omniscience which a lazy and inert mind is apt to envisage" (271).

If such statements sound too outlandish to the mind that is still locked into "imaginary realism," (1) then I'd recommend reflecting on Frye's later descriptions of the importance of college, which can be found in his convocation speeches collected in On Education. There you will find him tell students that "the university doesn't claim that anybody ever has, ever could, or ever ought to order his life entirely by reason. …

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